Monday, 11 January 2016

Review of Isadora Chai's Bistro à Table, PJ - Great Service, Shame about the Food

Before Christmas, I found myself back in KL, the land of fat policemen and overpriced wine, and once again in the company of my comrade-at-cutlery, renowned KL straight-talker and food blogger Brian Mack.  Our target that night was Bistro à Table in Petaling Jaya, the home of outspoken celebrity chef Isadora Chai.

I had, of course, heard of Isadora.  Years ago, when I used to write for the now (sadly) defunct Flavours magazine, one of my articles was published in a Flavours issue which featured photos of a rather attractive young woman performing unnatural acts with a dead fish and a Japanese knife.  That was, of course, Isadora.  I didn't quite understand the point of the photoshoot, which portrayed her as something of a petulant cross between Paul Bocuse and Brenda Walsh with a nasty streak of the Caligulas, but I understand that her star has risen since then, streaking across the Malaysian gastronomic sky leaving a trail of cosmic dust and bruised egos in her wake.

So when I stepped into Bistro à Table, I was surprised that we were recognised.   At least Brian was, and he was greeted warmly with an "Oh, hi Brian" by Isadora and her very capable maitresse d', Carol.  On this Tuesday night in December, there were six rather quiet diners total in the restaurant, so it felt a bit like a cathedral decked out with French Belle Epoque posters.  Carol came over, took our orders, and the show began.

I took copious notes of our dinner, but as they do, things get lost over Christmas.  Forgive me if this post lacks the usual rigorous analysis to which you might have become accustomed.

Shared Appetiser 1: Daily Special of Zucchini Flowers (RM29 net)

This was excellent.  Zucchini flowers were fresh and the batter was light and crispy without being greasy.  There is a spicy, peppery element in the flowers' ricotta stuffing, which keeps the palate on edge and wanting more.  I can't recall what the sauce was but I really liked that too (see what I mean when I say "lack of rigorous analysis"?) Brian and I fight over the third piece, and it is amazing value at under RM 10 per piece.

Shared Appetiser 2: Smoked Foie Gras with Cotton Candy and Balsamic Glaze (RM72 net)

This dish went right over my head, I'm sorry to say.  The foie was bitter from the smoke and underseasoned.  The cotton candy was meant to be the sweet foil to the foie, but as you would expect from spun sugar, had no depth of flavour and dissipated leaving no taste memory.  The lack of a sauce meant the various elements, disappointing as they are individually, find no common cohesion.  Brian complained that the foie was cold.  Dull and and lacking the wow factor which a lot of people expect when ordering an expensive luxury ingredient like foie gras.

Shared Main 1: Fresh Mud Crab Linguine with White Wine Broth (RM89 net)

I quite liked this dish.  The crab was sweet, the linguine al dente (if anything, it probably could have done with another half-minute in the pot, and I like my pasta with bite), the cherry tomatoes provided a much needed burst of acidity and colour, and the broth was a quintessence of crab enhanced with olive oil, garlic and white wine.  Shame, then, that I found around six pieces of crab shell in the crab meat, and quite large shards too.  A couple of smaller ones ended up ground between my teeth.  Brian couldn't quite match my feat of dexterity, managing to find only three pieces.  We collected the shell shards and showed them to Carol, who was very apologetic, but I heard nothing further about it.

Now I need to put in a word for Carol, who was tending personally to our table.  Brian tells me that she is a veteran of the Malaysian hospitality industry, and worked at a few top KL restaurants before joining Bistro à Table.  She quite clearly knows her food and service, and is extremely articulate, sincere and courteous to the extreme.  When she apologises for a kitchen snafu, you believe she actually means it.  I would go so far as to say she delivered the best, most composed service in a restaurant I have encountered in a restaurant in Malaysia.

Shared Main 2: A3 Wagyu Sirloin, Hokkaido F1 (ten bazillion ringgit, net of course)

Now, why Brian ordered this, as opposed to the A5 Winter Kobe Sankaku which cost the same per gram, is beyond me.  However, I learned for the first time that there are Japanese farmers committing sacrilege by crossing Japanese cattle with Aberdeen Angus (the F1 denotes a "first cross", meaning the animal is a 50:50 cross; F2 denotes the offspring of the F1 cow bred again with a wagyu bull).  This was excellent, though I dare not say whether it was worth the RM199 per 100g price tag.  Simply seasoned and seared, it was supremely tender and juicy, although as expected, lacked the big beefy bite of a good grass-fed animal.  The onion shoot added a chlorophyll-y bitterness which sets off the richness of the wagyu beautifully.

Dessert: "Ode to Newton" (RM46 net)

Carol came over with a little card explaining Isadora's inspiration for the dish, to which I suggested that they should probably number the cards so people know how many have ordered it before, a la Tour d'Argent and its ducks.  Carol just smiled enigmatically in response, the kind of smile which suggested I was the worst sort of bullshitter.  I then tried reading the card which said something about Newton, apples, gravity (went missing with my notes on the food).  Physics was by far my worst subject in school so it kind of went over my head, but I recalled something about an ice-cream being dragged down by gravity into a glass of warm ginger beer, and a pear soufflé rising up against gravity, something, something...

After all that build-up and foreplay, when my Ode arrived after a 35-minute wait (the menu asks you to wait for 25), I was utterly disappointed.  Carol knew this, as she shamefacedly presented a half-collapsed mutant soufflé to my table.  "I'm very sorry about this, I will give you a discount on the dessert", she apologised, as we both stared at the pathetic little pudding, which didn't even manage to rise over the edge of half the ramekin.  When she pierced the top with the spoon and poured in the crème anglaise, the soufflé just sat there nonchalantly, probably because it had already been deflated.  I tasted it, and it was revoltingly eggy.  I asked a second opinion from Brian, who declared it inedible.  I returned it to Carol, who apologised again and promised to remove it from our bill, but let me keep the ginger beer and ice-cream (quite decent).  Being Chinese, my reflex thought was that "hang on, does that mean I don't get my discount anymore?", but being Chinese, my maths skills also soon kicked in, and getting a full comp is obviously better than getting a discount.

Like the soufflé, my photo of Brian's apple crumble (RM 21 net) wasn't quite suitable for consumption so it is not portrayed here.  He liked it though, so at least one of us had something decent to finish on.


From what I can see, Isadora can make good food when she works to showcase the quality ingredients, and I really cannot fault her on her sourcing, which is top-notch.  However, more than half the dishes ordered tonight showed significant flaws in either conceptualisation (the foie gras), or execution (crab shells in the linguine and the soufflé being severely overcooked).  And you wonder why a restaurant would bother serving an overcooked, collapsed soufflé when the diner is almost certain to reject it.  Frankly couldn't be arsed offering another dessert to replace it???

I must admit I felt rather sorry for Carol.  As the night wore on, I could only imagine she felt like a diplomat from a particularly naughty third-world country, continuously called upon by  an irate host government to explain the actions of her recalcitrant masters many miles away.  I certainly hope the kitchen was just having a bad evening, because she's a very rare front-of-house talent (especially in the KL market) and deserves support at the same level, instead of curmudgeons like me and Brian taking her to task.

We had a couple of good dishes, but at the prices Bistro à Table is charging, the inconsistency is really not acceptable (our bill ended up over some RM 55o for two, including one corkage of RM60 net).  And with Evert Onderbeke doing some pretty good work at Soleil a couple of doors down, it's not like there isn't some keen competition around town.

6 Jalan 17/54 Seksyen 17 
46400 Petaling Jaya
Tel: +60 3 7931 2831 
BYO Policy: RM60 nett per 750mL bottle.  For a list of BYO restaurants in KL and the Klang Valley and their corkage policies, please click here.


  1. Good write. And it makes such a difference knowing the writer - I actually "heard" this. First time. I guess I don't know many writers...

    Not an unfair review, and I would totally agree with everything said about the food. Hit and Miss is a comment that has been passed to me a few times by my KL foodie peeps since we were there. But the hits tend to be right on the button, and the Zucchini and Wagyu were excellent for me. Nice comments on Carol. She is a treasure. Strange how a seemingly knowing enigmatic smile can expose us to ourselves, eh? Cheers!!

  2. Yes, funny that, innit?!

    Thanks for the very kind comments, Brian. I agree with you fully, zucchini and wagyu were spot-on, and the crab linguine did have excellent flavour and texture. Just a shame about dem shells...

  3. had a meal there 2 years ago, thought for the price it was pretty terrible ... apart fr the very nice lady maitre d (wondering if it was carol then) ... service was poor. food was poor, even conceptually - foie mooncake served with a brioche ... mooncake snow skin tasted like it had been left in the fridge for a while and never understood why it was served with a bun of brioche 6 times (i kid u not) the size of the mooncake .. ??

    1. Calvin, now that you have had a go at Isadora, just be careful where you go the next time, you may have been blacklisted...

  4. lol ... exactly my point ! for all that talk ...